Joan of Circles

Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday. Wait, don’t go. Let me explain why. Our whole family gets together at the home of the original American, my aunt Joan, who married my uncle (the one whom I don’t call dad) the year before I was born, and fourteen years before the Iron Curtain found a way to fold. She then slowly brought us all here, over the course of seventeen years, until we were all on the same side of the ocean.

Joan is the first American I ever loved. She sent me colorful pencils with colorful erasers. She packed bubble gum and socks into parcels. She brought me a Raggedy Ann doll and a Michael Jackson shirt. When I visited America for the first time at the age of twelve, she introduced me to the bagel, took me to Cape Cod to show me the ocean and feed me lobster, sang with her son for the entire duration of every car ride, and taught me to speak sarcasm in English. And when I moved to New York at the age of sixteen, she had a fully furnished, beautiful apartment on the Upper West Side, ready to welcome us home. She took me to Brearley, got me a full scholarship, and told me to start wearing deodorant.

Joan went to Smith. She took heat from the KGB, when she insisted on her right to create a family with a man from the enemy’s side. She made two of the kindest, most beautiful people to ever walk the earth. She works a job that anyone would dream of, and that she’s had for as long as I’ve known how to walk. She’s a devoted wife and mother. She lives in the Upper West Side apartment of my dreams. She patiently coaxes my uncle to change out of ripped jeans and faded, paint stained tee shirts into formal attire for special occasions. She doesn’t ask him why he goes outside in tee shirts on freezing winter days, or why he wades through a fountain in Central Park instead of walking around it like every other person. She travels and makes scrapbooks worthy of their own gallery. She loves without cuddling, but with a steady readiness to lend an ear or a hand. She says the oddest phrases in Armenian, without a trace of the American softening of sounds and inflections. She speaks Russian better than Putin. She’s witty. She doesn’t take bullshit from anyone. Trump would call her a nasty woman, such a nasty one.

Joan hosts Thanksgiving every year, and every year, I enter the month of November in anticipation of her feast, which spills over into a second room for the children. Those of us who were at the children’s table twenty years ago have moved into the chairs of the elders we have lost, and to make room for the children who have come to us over the years. Most of all, I look forward to the circle. As brief and fleeting as it always is, it is the pivot of every Thanksgiving gathering.

I remember the circle we made holding hands for the first time. I remember the first Thanksgiving my son joined our circle, the first one with my then not yet husband by my side, the first one without our matriarch, my sweet grandmother Alma, whose absence we feel acutely every time we come together in a circle. I remember the circle after 9/11, and the one ten years later with my daughter in my arms. We take turns to share things for which we are grateful. We’re also funny, so no circle is void of laughter.

Always, I break away from the circle feeling thankful for the mosaic that is my family, for the paths we have walked to each other, and for all the good we have in our lives. We come together because there’s grace to be given, love to be shared, and yes, there is also Joan’s succulent turkey, orange cranberries, and the mother of all cheesecakes.

Today, I am thankful for Joan, for circles, and for the privilege of anticipating abundance of food and love.

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